Since the opening of the Senate impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona last Jan. 16, I have managed to attend nearly all the sessions personally, instead of merely watching them on TV as perhaps tens of thousands do. Despite the difficulty of forsaking the comfort of home and having to brave horrendous traffic from Monday to Thursday every week, I hie to the Senate because there is really no substitute for getting the “flavor” of the trial, so to speak, in the session hall.
One such session was yesterday when, ironically enough, things had gotten so boring that there were far less visitors than on other days. But to the regular habitués, including a few who plan to write books on this historic trial, such as former Sen. Francisco “Kit” Tatad, prolific book author Dr. Cecilio Arillo and multi-awarded writer Marites Danguilan Vitug, yesterday’s session was bound to be epochal.
For it effectively saw the DEMOLITION of the prosecution’s Article II of the Articles of Impeachment, on which, in turn, IT HAD OBVIOUSLY PINNED ITS HOPES FOR THE CONVICTION OF CJ CORONA. So important, in fact, is Article II to the prosecution that it rammed an amendment of its presentation of the eight Articles, despite the vigorous protest of the defense, and made it the lead Article. Now the prosecution’s admission that it has no proof on the allegations of 45 properties may have dashed those hopes, perhaps permanently. At the very least, the credibility of the prosecution is badly damaged. As Sen. Francis Escudero was quoted over radio, "Ang pabago-bagong informacion na nilalatag ay kahinaan ng prosecution."
Yesterday’s proceeding began quite innocently with the issue that after three weeks remained unfinished---CJ’s Corona’s “alleged non-disclosure of his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).” After SC Clerk of Court Enriqueta Vidal was forced to turn over to the Senate Court, at the instigation of Sen. Franklin Drilon, the SALN of Corona that he had filed at her office, thus disproving its “non-disclosure,” the prosecutors’ contention then centered on alleged “undervalued” entries in that SALN.
Interestingly, it took a Liberal, Sen. Ralph Recto, to successfully elicit from the prosecution the admission, as per rules of the Civil Service Commission, that defective entries in the SALN could be subjected to “corrective investigation” if it’s determined that the error is not intentional on the part of the filer. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile then queried of Cavite Representative-prosecutor Elpidio Barzaga Jr. whether such omission or defect could be considered a “high crime” which, under the Constitution, is ground for impeachment of the country’s top officials. Barzaga was forced to reply, “No, Your Honor.”
At that juncture Sen. Joker Arroyo rose to state that in the US they have something akin to the SALN, but he also stressed how the US Senate, particularly in the impeachment trial of former US President Bill Clinton, had set a range within which offenses against an impeachable official are weighed. Arroyo recalled that when the US senators studied the charge against Clinton, they realized it was non-impeachable and threw it out. In the same manner, he asserted, the senators involved in CJ Corona’s trial have to decide whether the allegations being leveled at him are impeachable or not; we have to set a “higher bar” (than that for ordinary mortals) “because we are removing here no less than the Chief Justice,” said Arroyo.
Prior to this point, both panels had locked horns over the nitty gritty of alleged property acquisitions of Corona and his family, including parking lots in condos that were paid on installment. Hence, when the mention of a “higher bar” of judgment was raised by Arroyo, Sen. Francis Escudero queried whether the so-called “45 properties” alleged to be owned by the CJ can qualify as basis for his impeachment. His subsequent query was almost an afterthought: how many properties is the Senate court looking at?
This was where the quibbling came up. Lead Prosecutor Niel Tupas replied that the prosecution was looking at around 21 properties of CJ and his family, including seven parking lots, NOT 45. Escudero then raised the logical question: where did the report on the 45 properties come from? Hesitating a minute, Tupas then flatly denied that it came from the prosecution. At that point, booing spontaneously erupted so loud from the galleries that Presiding Judge Enrile had to bang his gavel unusually hard; pages hurriedly emerged brandishing “Silence” placards. All this commotion one would have missed on a 24-inch TV. The crowds remained restive.
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada then arose to follow up on Escudero’s “discovery.” "Kung ganoon, sino ang naglabas ng 45 properties?" he urged. Tupas replied that the list came from the Land Registration Authority (LRA) which the prosecution merely attached to its documents. During the break called to establish order in the chamber, Sen. Estrada apparently saw in the senators’ lounge what hordes saw on TV: a replay by a yellow TV network of a press conference held over three weeks ago by Tupas where he was seen taking photos of and parading “documents” on the 45 properties. Over the weeks that smug prosecution spokesman Miro Quimbo (head of Pag-Ibig in GMA's term!) would grow hoarse broadcasting these properties which yellow media in turn bannered.
So well-publicized was this issue that on the morning that the Senate trial was to later open, CJ Corona, doubtless much against his will, was forced to go over these alleged “45 properties” one by one during the mass and send-off for the defense panel at the SC Quadrangle. He asserted that he owned only five of those properties.
With Rep. Tupas' declaration that the prosecution has no proof on the 45 properties, the onus is now on LRA Administrator Eulalio Diaz III to prove that he was just careless and did not simply allow himself to be manipulated on this score. A classmate of P-Noy, Diaz could have been ordered by his immediate boss, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, to produce the list of 45 properties from the computer, with no regard for the facts. On the other hand, the prosecution was obviously too in a hurry to execute the Palace order to demonize Corona, after the blitzkrieg impeachment vote in the House---fully confident that what it dished out about the 45 properties would be bannered anyway by the “conscript media,” as Kit Tatad termed it.
After Tupas’ disastrous admission, LRA Administrator Diaz III SHOULD RESIGN, along with Presidential Adviser Ronald Llamas who mocked the Palace’s vaunted anti-piracy campaign to uphold intellectual property rights when he was caught red-handed purchasing pirated DVDs from a store last week.
Recent events prove how the prosecution has been irresponsible in the handling of its so-called evidence, bandying it to the yellow media even before it’s even entered and admitted in the trial court---in full violation of the rules of procedure and basic norms of decency and fair play. This has led Sen. Gregorio Honasan to decry again for the record yesterday “this issue of premature disclosure” and the fact that the trial outside of the Senate is going faster than that inside the Senate. But truth has a way of surfacing and the prosecution’s mishandling of the “45 properties” issue may prove to be quite costly, for I believe that the Filipino people have a sense of fairness and justice and they are outraged at its prostitution.
For a session that looked so boring, yesterday was quite an awakener.
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